Crunching the frost-tipped grass under my boots, I set the last of my fishing rods on the floor of the boat. Crouching to untangle the web of treble hooks now mazed together at the rod tips, I mumbled a few words of frustration and watched as my breath fogged with each exhale. The morning of October 22, 2000 greeted me with typical autumn conditions for the Upper Peninsula of Michigan: cold air burned my lungs, an overcast sky blanketed above, and a gusty wind blew out of the north. As a faded, dew-covered maple leaf blew past my ear, I realized that mother nature had created such a morning for only one thing: musky fishing!
Fall sparks a season of fishing that is imperiled by any other time of year. It is a period when muskies turn aggressive and giant fish prowl the depths in search of prey. Having fished the previous evening with some success, I decided to return to Munuscong Bay in hopes of putting a good muskie or two in the boat. As friends make any outdoor activity more enjoyable, I invited two of my own to join in the hunt. Bryan Colby and Patrick Isabell, both students at Lake Superior State University and avid fishermen, were eager to leave as the first rays of sunrise appeared on the horizon.
Returning to the launch site we had used the previous night, a glance across Munuscong revealed a thematic ballet of white-capped waves dancing on the surface. While some fishermen cringe at their sight, breaking waves can energize the fall musky bite. Heading south, the chop on the water made the hull of our Boston Whaler crash with each breaking wave. It wasn’t long before I began to feel the effects of the unsettled conditions. There is perhaps no worse feeling in the world than that of turning green, ten miles from a boat launch. Keeping one hand on the steering wheel and the other on my swaying head, I pushed my face into the wind and wondered how I had surrendered the unwavering dock back at the launch. Fighting the queasiness and re-swallowing the golf ball size lump in my throat every few minutes, we eventually “rolled” our way to the area that had produced three muskie “hook-ups” the night before.
Bryan and Patrick immediately released their baits behind the boat, carefully watching as the lures disappeared into the rough, murky water of the bay. Leaving one hand on the steering wheel, I too lowered an offering, a rather large, perch colored crankbait. The action of the lure produced a tight wobble and my hopes were high as the bait plunged below the surface. With two lures running off the stern and one off each side, the “muskie-buffet” was set and it was now time to wait.
Trolling the bay was difficult when the bow of the boat was heading into the wind, but we soon found some comfort trolling with the waves. This meant, however, that the wind was blowing the engine exhaust fumes directly into the stern area. By this time, I had recovered from my nausea, but like some curse from Poseidon, Patrick soon announced that he was thinking of starting a chum line for ole’ muskellunge. While I can assure you that my seasickness was of no laughing matter, watching Patrick turn from a rosy-cheeked Irishman to the pale green color of a guy ready to lose his granola bar breakfast was quite funny. Leaning over the side, Patrick spent the next few minutes finding comfort in sending occasional streams of spit overboard and uttering the words, “Oh man, that was close”. Bryan and I provided as much comfort as we could, at least when we weren’t laughing.
Nothing cures a bout of seasickness faster than hooking a fish, and we soon saw the rod on the port side begin to violently bounce. Ripping the rod from the holder, I immediately set the hook and began to reel. The fish struggled against the stiffness of the rod and soon appeared at the surface of the bay. “Big northern”, I yelled, as the fish, seemingly on cue, opened his mouth and thrashed his head from side to side. The seagulls overhead must have been chuckling to themselves as we began running around the boat preparing to land the big pike. Patrick was moving gear to the bow and Bryan anxiously held the net, waiting for his chance. He did not wait long, as the fish was soon thrashing at the side of the boat. However, we soon discovered that the net was too small and my failed attempt at “gill-grabbing” the pike sent the fish swimming back into the tinted water.
It’s funny when you lose a big fish. There is always a moment of silence where everyone just sulks in the loss and is afraid to utter a word. The great thing was that we were not battling Munuscong for pike today. We were chasing muskies and within minutes we had one hooked. The same rod, laced with a red and black Shallow Raider crankbait, was again bouncing in its holder. Tensions were high as we realized that the net was useless and a successful “gill-grab” would be required. The fish soon rolled on the surface and we all cheered as the musky basked in our admiration. After several short bursts, the fish appeared along side the Whaler. With the skill of a veteran musky angler, Bryan “gill-grabbed” the healthy predator and hoisted it into the boat. After several rounds of handshaking, a few pictures, and a wet muskie kiss, I released the fourteen pound beauty back into the choppy bay.
The next hour produced two more short strikes and several daydreams of giant muskies lurking below. However, I soon began to wonder if it was time to head back to the launch. Deciding to make one more pass against the current, we soon had another fish on. Amazingly, the bite came on the same rod as earlier, trolling the same Shallow Raider crankbait! I immediately released the rod from the holder and the wind began to shift the boat sideways like a helpless cork bouncing in the whitecaps.
Upon setting the hook, I immediately felt the weight of the giant musky. “This is a hog!” I announced excitingly. Running directly at the boat, the fish forced me to feverishly crank the reel to avoid developing slack in the line. In a flash, the musky was torpedoing under the boat on a mad dash for the weedy bottom. Standing at the stern, I quickly jumped onto the gunnel of the boat and ran to the bow. This fish was in absolute control and forcing me to perform a kind of aquatic, high-wire act, as I quickly raced a complete circle around the boat’s outer edge, balancing on the gunnel and dodging equipment and bodies as I went.
Relieved to be standing at the stern once again, I was amazed to see the fish begin to aggressively rip drag from the Daiwa line counter reel. Watching the counter, we were awed to see 100ft, 150ft, 200ft, and then 260ft of line burn from the reel and into the stained bay. This musky was mad, really mad! Yelling at Patrick to start the boat, I soon realized we had to close the distance to the fish or risk exposing the knot tied to the reel spool. Slowly crashing against the waves, the whaler crept towards the musky and I slowly gained my lost, stretched line.
Placing the boat in neutral, I began to patiently enjoy the fight we were experiencing. “It’s twenty pounds at least”, I yelled. With an enthusiastic “Oh yeah!” Bryan and Patrick stood watch, enjoying the spectacle as much as I. Suddenly, the enraged musky came to the surface and we were able to get our first look at its length. It looked big, but surely not a giant. The boat was full of smiles, but laced with a bit of nervous caution. With knees knocking, I firmly held the rod and pulsated as the fish continued to aggressively strip line from the reel. The battle had lasted thirty minutes, when the fish broke the surface, thrashed his head, and rolled into another deep dive. The roll had exposed the size of the muskie’s head and girth. Had I had a bell attached to my knees, I would have made the Salvation Army proud! After closing our gapping jaws and uttering a few expletives, it was clear that this was a big, big, musky!
For the past hour, our focus had been strictly on the developing underwater saga, but our surroundings were quickly changing. The crisp, October wind had blown the Whaler into three feet of murky, reed filled water. Passing a shallow set of weeds, we realized that the hull of the boat would soon be beached on the sandy bottom of the bay. With the net useless, Bryan was anxious to have a chance at another “gill-grab”, so I climbed to the bow of the boat and tried to muscle the fighting musky to his outstretched hands. With the rod torque to the limit, our trophy glided towards the boat with moderate hesitation. Our battle was slowing, but it was far from over. The giant musky would only approach the boat with its tremendous head facing perpendicular to the Whaler’s side. From my view in the bow, I could see Bryan leaning over the side-rail, eyes bulging with anticipation, staring at the huge muskie, which sat only three feet away, glaring back with eyes the size of half-dollars. It was a classic Great Lakes standoff.
After several attempts at tricky “gill-grabs” and the wind continuing to push our helpless crew into the shallows, the worst possible scenario unfolded before our anxious eyes. The big fish made a dash for a weedy pocket and became entangled along a reedy break. I quickly loosened the drag on the reel and could feel the spool releasing line. Drifting uncontrollably, my knee knocking quickly turned to desperation. We had to stop our drift and somehow make our way back to the reedy break. A quick glance back at the musky revealed large ripples on the water where its mammoth tail was fighting to release the tangled line.
Knowing we had few options to free the fish, we decided to start the boat and churn our way back to the toothy trophy. With the exhaust ports blaring and the prop creating a trail of cloudy sand, the boat eased back to the reedy break. After a few attempts at shaking the tangled array of line, hooks and musky free, I soon realized there was but one option: jump into the water and take what we had fought so hard for!
Stripping down to my underwear, socks and a t-shirt, I slowly made my way back to the stern of the boat. Donning a spare set of camouflage overalls, I gingerly stuck one toe into the cold, cloudy water. The combination of cold air, cutting wind, and numbing water should have been enough to cool my ambition. However, the thought of holding the great muskellunge in my arms, a feat comparable to lifting the Holy Grail (at least to musky fisherman), pushed me into the depths of the bay. My socks pressed deep into the soggy bottom and the goose down filler used in the overalls quickly absorbed the surrounding water.
Easing my way to the entangled musky, I cautiously stepped to within a foot of its tail. Without warning, the suddenly revived trophy torpedoed forward and snapped the reed from which it was tangled. The giant was now free and had repositioned itself six feet in front of me. Anxious to finally end the hour and a half long war, I dredged my way back to boat and retrieved the net. Gliding along the spongy bay bottom, I eased myself back to the huge musky. With the caution of a gem cutter, I gently lowered the net to within inches of the tooth filled head. Then, after saying a quick prayer to the musky gods, I grabbed the great fish by the tail and swept it into the net. With one quick motion, the net was at my side, along with the largest great lakes muskie I had ever seen.
The Bible holds that only Jesus walks on water, well if I didn’t, I came damn close. Lunging the net and fish into the boat, cheers of laughter and wonderment could be heard echoing along the Munuscong shoreline. Standing in the stern, I barely noticed my body shivering from the cold as I stood glaring at our giant muskie. It was truly a monster. Measuring 54″ in length and 44 arm-straining pounds, the impressive trophy was easily my largest muskie and a glaring testament to the rewards of teamwork, persistence, and the joys of fall fishing.